Where it Began
In 1870 Julius Vogel, Colonial Treasurer, unveiled the most ambitious public works and assisted-immigration programme in New Zealand’s history. It was to be funded by massive borrowing in the London money markets, reaching £10m by 1876 and £21m by 1881 (equivalent to $1.5bn and $3.5bn respectively in 2020).
This would be spent on assisted (government-subsidised) immigration and on building or improving infrastructure, including the telegraph network, roads, public buildings and port facilities. Its centerpiece was a promise to build more than 1,000 miles (1,600 km) of railway in nine years.
The undertaking was massive.
Building railways and roads in a mountainous, geologically unstable and swampy country was a difficult challenge. New Zealand lacked capital and labour but, compared to Britain and Europe, land was relatively cheap. Rather than build the most direct routes with expensive earthworks, tunnels and stone bridges, it made sense to build longer, winding routes around obstacles, to erect wooden trestle bridges, and to tolerate tight curves and steep gradients.
Conditions made for dangerous construction, particularly in isolated areas where bringing in supplies was difficult. Heavy rainfall led to flooding, which regularly washed away early bridges and the humidity caused wood to rot. Unstable terrain and earthquakes posed a high risk of landslide. Surveying was carried out in dense, virgin forest in uninhabited areas. These factors, together with the wish to build quickly and cheaply, led to the adoption of a narrow 3 ft 6 in (1,067-mm) gauge as the national standard.
Progress was made quickly. Within two years the Department had opened 960km of roads and within 10 years 2,112 km of railway was open for traffic.
From the 1870s to 1920s railways opened the country for settlement, linked communities and made transportation of goods for export a feasible proposition.
Roads vs railway
While railway construction dominated public works policy, there was a strong preference for roads. Traction engines were deemed a more viable transport model for farm produce, wool and – increasingly – dairy. This drove the requirement for metalled roads as rapid and reliable transport was essential. This plus the increased use of motor vehicles from the 1920s onwards, created a demand for safer, more reliable roading.
Then to now
WSP’s role in shaping transport infrastructure continues today. Transport connections bring economic vitality for the benefit of communities and the environment. Cities and towns of the future must support happy and productive communities with good transport links.
In the 2018 Global Cities Index, WSP looked at how cities are preparing for a future shaped by the major urban transitions of our day: urbanization; density and growth; digital disruption; emerging mobility; evolving utilities models and a changing climate.
The issues that demand cities’ attention the most are housing, both the cost and availability, followed by public transport. The Index also showed that leading cities had a blueprint to reduce their Greenhouse Gas emissions and, as such, planning the infrastructure to support the transition to low carbon transport is a priority.
Solutions to supporting this, such as infrastructure for cycling and other micro mobility options, connecting people to public transport hubs, and the electrification of public and private vehicles, present their own challenges and is something WSP experts are helping clients develop.